Hot Pursuit is about two degrees away from a pretty good movie. The elevator pitch is solid – screw-up cop finds herself on the run from the police force she holds so dear while trying to protect a key witness in the prosecution of a drug kingpin. Add stars Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara, who both also produced the movie, in the two leading roles, and the makings for a serviceable action comedy are in place. But throw in a woefully underdeveloped and tone deaf script, and Hot Pursuit starts to go up in flames.
Accidentally making things go up in flames is exactly why Officer Cooper (Witherspoon) is stuck riding the evidence desk, but she’s pulled back into field duty to help the U.S. Marshalls escort a drug cartel higher-up and his wife make the trip to Dallas to testify against their boss. A little predictably, this doesn’t go to plan, and Cooper ends up fleeing both crooked cops and cartel enforcers with the wife, Daniella Riva (Vergara).
The initial setup is bolstered by a montage of the young Cooper literally growing up in the back seat of her father’s police cruiser. It’s the first thing we’re shown, and it’s probably the best part of the whole movie. Of course, that praise cuts both ways; while the montage does a great job of establishing Cooper’s commitment to her job, her character never develops much beyond that initial point of reference. Even more damning, there is be dissonance that should be resolved. Cooper the child is confident and in charge. Cooper the adult seems deeply unsure of herself.
Some of that incongruity has to be placed at the feet of Witherspoon herself. She plays Cooper as perpetually nervous, but betrays little, if any, festering discontent for the obviously crappy way her lifelong dream job has turned out. It’s willful ignorance on the part of the character, but Witherspoon plays her straight, like the nervous tics are just part of her personality and not covering up some deeper emotion that should be present.
Of course, Witherspoon doesn’t get much help from the script, which makes a point of Cooper’s dismissible investigative powers and physical inferiority. But where this turns really bad is with a subplot halfway through the blistering 87 minute runtime involving a muscular ex-con whom Cooper and Daniella accidentally kidnap. In a sudden right turn, the film very pointedly asks why Cooper can’t manage to reel in a man to take care of her, as if it’s so obvious this is something she needs. To be fair, Cooper does show an interest in dating, but the odd emphasis on her fulfillment through sexual attention feels uncomfortably of another age and doesn’t fit well within a narrative about self-actualization.
Most of Hot Pursuit’s issues come back to the fact that it poorly defines its own goals. Is Cooper really the police drone she seems to be? What does success mean in her eyes? Why does Daniella keep trying to run away from Cooper? Understanding motivation is important to holding the audience’s interest in the drama, and this movie is painfully insular, pulling subplots in and out when it’s convenient to explain away details without the characters having to undergo stresses which actually make them reexamine their own lives.
This is no less a problem for the comedy in the film. Seeing Cooper and Daniella mad about the news incorrectly reporting their height and age is worth a chuckle the first time; on the third or fourth telling, it’s just predictable. Daniella is vain, certainly, but we’ve seen that already, and the comedy isn’t putting any new or insightful spin on that idea. Maybe the best example is a scene where Cooper and Daniella have to sneak past a police checkpoint disguised as a deer. There’s some amusement in forcing the two of them to work together to pull off such a ridiculous scheme, but it has no effect on the arc of either character. Before long, as with the film as a whole, it’s more boring than funny.
The Verdict: 1 out of 5
Technical credits are solid enough (if not eye-catching) that this is perhaps a harsh score. But if I may be allowed a moment for philosophy, before a movie can do anything else, it must entertain. It must engage its audience and make us willing to go on the journey, however absurd. As it’s often said, the worst sin a movie can commit is to be boring. Hot Pursuit shows promise in its initial premise, but doesn’t even manage to fail because it’s trying something too audacious. It plays things safe – too safe – while failing to check off several of the basics, and as a result is simply dull.